Monday, January 16, 2012

THEATER: Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Farewell Speech

Photo/Julie Lemberger
Presented by the Chelfitsch Theater Company as a co-production of the Japan Society and Under the Radar Festival.

I first encountered the work of Toshiki Okada in the Play Company's 2010 production of Enjoy; the result, deftly translated down to the last tic by Aya Ogawa and finely directed by Dan Rothenberg, was a powerful and universal study of the lost twentysomething generation. This revival of his less mature and more stylized Air Conditioner, now part of a loosely connected triptych along with Hot Pepper and The Farewell Speech, which Okada directs (with English subtitles provided by Ogawa), comes across as a more indulgent affair. The plays are not without their power -- they're timely and perfect in capturing the helplessness of temps -- but their emphatic choreography overwhelms any sense of these being actual, empathetic characters: it's as if Pinter's pregnant pauses, Beckett's dry and hopeless repetitions, and Brecht's pointed alienation have all collided to much diminished effect.

For instance: one ends up asking why the Man in Air Conditioner is the only character to introduce his scene directly to the audience, rather than questioning the significance of his anecdote (how politicians tend to talk over people) and how it relates to his own casually brutal dismissals of the Woman who is increasingly flirty as she describes the frigidity of the office's air. It's not that there isn't a valid point being made by the three temps in Hot Pepper, who have been tasked with organizing the farewell party for their co-worker, Erika, so much as it is that the way this reflects upon their own eventual firings is overshadowed by their (I want to say Kabuki-like) overwrought movements. Congratulations: you've externalized their internal insecurities . . . then again, there's a reason they're usually internalized. Moreover, we don't really need three twenty minute plays illustrating the same thing; I was personally exhausted by the time The Farewell Speech -- a powerhouse monologue -- began.

This program claims that the pieces represent "the tension or gap between . . . gestures as acting . . . and physical movements that transpire in response to the background music." On some level, I can agree, in the sense that the text/choreography matches the jazz in its scatting, improvisational qualities. But it's meaningless  to the majority of American audiences: their concentration will be too divided between the subtitles and the actors to pick up on much else . . . assuming it's even there.


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Farewell doesn't always mean as goodbye of the end of everything, cause sometimes farewell means the end where you begin. :)

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